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The Sports Page Comes to the WSJ

2009 March 3
by Skip Sauer

The WSJ unveiled its sports page today. The lead article is an interesting one on incentives, or the lack of incentives in today’s NBA:

Beyond the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic — all of whom have won at least 70% of their games — only the San Antonio Spurs have better than a 10% chance to win the NBA title, according to lines offered by Las Vegas oddsmakers. Four teams are on track to lose at least 75% of their games, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

For the first time in NBA history, team owners, executives, and fans in numerous markets say they have resigned themselves to the idea that their teams are not going to be competitive this season and that, given the state of the economy, they could not make the sorts of expensive moves that would help them improve. “We all want to win, but we have to be aware of the uncertainty of our future revenue,” said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Beyond the obvious disappointment for fans, what’s most troubling about this situation is that for the first time in the long history of North American professional sports, the majority of the teams in one league have no financial incentive to improve. Most will be better off financially if they do nothing, and in many cases, will fare even better if they make personnel moves that are certain to make them worse.

Adding to the trouble is the fact that next year, an unprecedented number of the league’s best and most desirable players will become free agents — a group that includes young superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudamire.

Wake me up when the Finals reach game 5….

More seriously, I take issue with the perspective of the article. College football is interesting and attracts fans year after year, despite that fact that 90% of the teams that participate have a minuscule chance at winning the BCS Championship. No doubt, the article is correct in that the financial incentive to improve has diminished. But the first order impact is that the financial cost of competing will decline. The sporting aspect of training, strategizing, and improving is no less diminished by the financial crisis. To be sure, general managers must be wary of the conditions in the aggregate economy — the article is correct on that point. But the compelling aspect of sport lies not in player contracts, but in competition on the court. That should not change, and teams that recognize this better than others will increase their chances of improving, and perhaps competing for the title, this season and next.

As for the WSJ’s addition of a sports page, I’m intrigued. But sports sections have been a staple of local newspapers for decades, and they haven’t saved newspapers from financial failure. My hunch is that new media competition in sports has been as strong as in any dimension of the news business. Indeed, the loss of newspaper circulation may be disproportionately due to ESPN.com, MLB.com, Tigernet, etc. Having said that, the Journal has a different take on things, and the new sports section is certainly welcome in this corner of fandom!

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